Anxiety Abounds Over Explosive Growth of Advanced Placement Enrollment

Are there too many students in A.P. courses?

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Are too many under-prepared, under-motivated students being squeezed into once-selective A.P. courses? This debate touches on a tangle of arguments over high school, opportunity vs. selectivity, and college admissions. The New York Times dove into the mess most recently, featuring contributors who argue that A.P. courses' explosive growth could be destructive, resulting in students who feel they ought to take A.P. courses, but end up doing poorly. The Florida-based St. Petersburg Times has also hosted fierce argument in its editorial pages over the trend. Here are the best opinions on why the A.P. program is too large, not large enough, and how to fix the situation.

  • The Schools (and Teachers) Are to Blame "School principals and administrators ... throughout Florida," write the editors of the St. Petersburg Times, "boast about the rising number of high school students enrolled in college-level Advanced Placement classes. Here's their dirty little secret: The passing rates on the AP exam are often pathetic. It is a scandalous situation that fails students, misleads parents and wastes public money." While the editors acknowledge that the low scores may be partly due to "unprepared students ... being steered into AP classes," they say that "does not explain wide variance in passing rates from teacher to teacher, even within the same school." Instead, the editors suggest the problems with the A.P. program are often a matter of ill-prepared teachers teaching a curriculum they're simply not qualified to handle.
  • Students May Not Always Get 5s on the Test, But the Challenge is Invaluable, counters Florida superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
Have you wondered why our graduation rate in Hillsborough County is the best in the Tampa Bay area and one of the best in the state? Have you wondered why we have more National Merit Scholars and National Achievement Scholars than other school districts? It is no coincidence that we have a greater number and percentage of students taking AP courses. Many of the newcomers to AP classes are minorities, low-income students and/or students who will be the first in their family to attend college. We are pushing our students to challenge themselves, and we're getting results.
  • If Anything, We Need More A.P. Classes, agrees Trevor Packer from the College Board, which administers the A.P. exams. "For disadvantaged students, the expansion of advanced placement has given many a greater likelihood of success in college, fortified by the rigor of their A.P. coursework." Yet "across the country," he argues in The New York Times, "well-prepared students, frequently from traditionally under-served minority populations, with the academic ability to study at an advanced level, are not being given the opportunity" afforded by these courses.
  • Skewed Incentives Serve College Board, Not Students or Schools, counter Patrick Welsh and Saul Geiser, also in The New York Times. "In part," writes high school teacher Welsh, "the explosion in advanced placement test takers has been fueled by Newsweek's annual cover story on America's 100 Best High Schools, a listing arrived at by dividing the number of tests given at a school--regardless of the test results--by the number of students in the senior class." Meanwhile, Geiser at the University of California points to other incentives for wanton A.P. enrollment--bonus points for A.P. courses in the college admissions game. To eliminate these incentives, Geiser suggests eliminating admissions bonus points merely for taking A.P. courses "except when students take the A.P. exams and achieve at least a passing score." Welsh has another idea for solving this problem:
Perhaps [high] schools would be better off dropping the A.P. label from their most rigorous courses and instead offering a detailed description of the work demanded in the classes, assuring students that if they accept the challenge, they will be prepared to take the corresponding Advanced Placement exam at the end of the year--if they so wish. This would of course mean less revenue for the College Board, but it could also mean more honesty and academic sanity in our high schools.
  • Ditch the Best High School List The Education Writers Association's Linda Perlstein agrees with Patrick Welsh on the damage done by high school rankings that focus on A.P. tests: "Not only is it enormously shallow to rank schools by a single metric--how many kids take AP and IB tests--in order to label them the Best High Schools, it also implies that Advanced Placement courses as put forth by the College Board, as well as International Baccalaureate, are the only worthwhile ways to challenge students."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.